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Terrain of Memory: A Japanese Canadian Memorial Project

By Kirsten Emiko McAllister

Review By Cole Harris

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 171 Autumn 2011  | p. 142-144

After the Second World War, most of the Japanese relocated in camps in the interior were sent to Ontario or to Japan, while many of those who remained in British Columbia, largely the elderly or the ill, were collected in New Denver. There the houses in the main camp (the Orchard) were not demolished, and in 1957 those still occupied by people of Japanese descent were deeded to them. A Japanese presence remained in this Kootenay village: one of their number became its mayor, and interracial marriage became common. Well aware of the passage of time and encouraged by the Redress Agreement of 1988, the Japanese elders in the village, and particularly Mrs. Kamegaya, an educated Japanese woman of Samurai background, laid plans for the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, which would treat the uprooting of the Japanese from their coastal communities and their lives in an internment camp. The centre – two relocated houses with period furnishings, a new community hall containing relevant exhibits, the Kyowakai (Working Together Society) Hall, and Japanese gardens – opened in 1994. From inception to completion and then as a much-visited centre it has been a contested site of memory. 

These memories are the subject of Kirsten Emiko McAllister’s book. For those of Japanese descent in New Denver, she, a sansei (third-generation Japanese Canadian) raised in Ontario and PhD candidate in sociology at Carleton University, was both insider and outsider. Her mother, a nisei (second-generation), had been interned during the war, but McAllister was a young academic from away. She came with the assumption that the memorial centre was little more than a tourist attraction carrying disciplinary and theoretical baggage that seemed increasingly irrelevant. She turned to the elders, listened to and recorded their stories, and came to see the Japanese settlement in New Denver not only as an internment camp but also as a home. From those whose home it was had come the impetus and direction that created the Memorial Centre, and from those who visited it came a full range of responses. The site provoked arguments and evoked different memories: it was far more than simply a tourist attraction. 

McAllister engages these memories in a way that brings her own self and values very much to the fore. She is introspective about her own position as a researcher and examines it closely. She considers herself both academic and critical social activist, and she strongly identifies with the objectives and achievements of the redress movement. She is quick to identify victims and their oppressors. At the same time, she is well aware that pasts are constructed in various and changing ways. These are different and perhaps incompatible positions. On the one hand, McAllister tends to view the centre as a locus of instruction about the suffering that state-backed racism inflicts. It embodies a lesson to be learned. On the other, she seeks to be open to many stories, and to avoid completion and finality, yet a diversity of stories can only dilute the lesson imparted by any one of them. 

For my part, I wonder how a site like the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, situated as it is in two complex movements of people and social power, can avoid a multitude of different stories. Behind the relocation of the Japanese during the war were both racism and fear. Racism was particularly in the air in new and predominantly British settlements where the future was not yet established and the Orient was only an ocean away. And, after Pearl Harbor, people were frightened; Japanese submarines were thought to be along the coast. Racism, fear, and war: out of that mix came the internment camps. They were also situated in a process of social and cultural change that had begun as soon as Japanese people began to settle in British Columbia. These migrants had left Japan behind and were being recontextualized in new settings. Life could not continue as it had: when they were forced to move again, change was accelerated. None of this complexity is well served by simple, didactic storytelling. Japanese Canadians themselves, as McAllister knows, tell very different stories about the camps. 

I have always felt that the Nikkei Centre has negotiated this complexity well. It engages not only the brutality of removal and the harshness of camp life but also the ongoingness and, to some fair degree, the creativity of life. The internment camps in British Columbia were not places of barbed wire and guns. My own stories come into play. My aunt and uncle on Harris ranch, one of the relocation sites around New Denver, did what they could to make life easier for the Japanese, many of whom were in their kitchen, listening to the radio, when an atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. As a lad on the ranch in summer, I played with the Japanese boys there and was astonished by the mosaic of miniature flower gardens created by the elderly Japanese men who lived in the ranch house. Later, Mrs. Kamegaya, who had come to New Westminster to teach Japanese and was caught by the war, became a friend. I once asked her why she did not return to live in Japan, where her prosperous family would have welcomed her. She could not, she said, live in Japan because it had become too North American. She, more than anyone else, was responsible for the Nikkei Centre, and I can only wonder what stories she wished it would tell. 


Terrain of Memory: A Japanese Canadian Memorial Project

Kirsten Emiko McAllister

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 293 pp.

$90.00 cloth, $34.95 paper.